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Does Leonardo DiCaprio Really Need Volunteer Labor?

Leonardo DiCaprio Used Volunteer Labor, Not Union, on Documentary Film The 11th Hour

FishbowlLA editor Kate Coe has an interesting article in Grist this week, regarding total hottie Leonardo DiCaprio’s new eco-documentary, The 11th Hour. She attended an LA press conference for the event, and posed a simple, yet challenging, question to Leo and the producers: “Is this a union film?”

The filmmakers seem flummoxed by my question. “It’s a documentary,” they offer. “It’s an independent film.” “It’s so low budget.”

None of which prevents a film from having a union crew, I point out. And having a union crew would seem to fit this film’s progressive agenda.

At this point, the rest of the press seems sort of embarrassed by the exchange — it’s so rude!

Attempting to explain my question, I remind the filmmakers that they just finished talking about how people should be aware of their choices. That they are advising consumers to avoid rainforest wood, sweatshop clothing, and chemical additives. To me, that also means watching films that have been produced in an ethical way.

DiCaprio stresses that any profits he gets from the film will go into nonprofit organizations — which is nice, but Hollywood bookkeeping is notorious for ensuring that even very popular films don’t turn a profit.

The producers then explain that it was just them and the editor and Leo in his mother’s garage, and everyone else was a volunteer. They latch on to this: Volunteers! Good! People really cared! Did we mention it was in Leo’s mother’s garage? The press sheet does include a disclaimer that its long list of credits is not contractual.

Kate goes on to make an interesting point:

So what, you may be thinking. It’s a good cause, and DiCaprio seems like a good guy. If people wanted to volunteer to help him out, what’s the harm? Besides, those Hollywood types can afford to skip a paycheck or two.

That may be true. But as I see it, it’s impossible to discuss — and attack — climate change without addressing issues of social class and economy. Encouraging conscious consumerism without addressing the underlying class and labor issues is irresponsible — no matter how green the product, how progressive the process. And it is, if you ask me, irresponsible to put out an “environmental” film that doesn’t quite follow the rules.

Rules like this:

* According to Kate McGuire of California’s Department of Industrial Relations, no one may work without pay (volunteer) for any organization other than a registered nonprofit or a state agency. Nor may any volunteer take the place of any paid worker.

* The Directors Guild of America confirms that no DGA member may work without pay on any production, volunteer or not, and that the Guild was not approached by the production company to work out a low- or no-budget contract option. IATSE (the technicians’ union), the Teamsters, the Writers Guild — all have similar provisions, and none was approached by the production.

* The Screen Actors Guild is tough on members who violate the bylaws — some even get expelled. DiCaprio, as a SAG member, worked on this film under a union contract made with Eleventeen Productions, an arm of Tree Media Group, the Conners sisters’ production company. His Pension & Welfare benefits were paid, as well. Other union members may not have been so lucky.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • jimey christmas, some people have to find something to bitch about in EVERYTHING. we have a crisis on our hands, at least some people are trying to help in any way they can, and here comes Mrs. Piss and Moan to rain on the parade.

  • Exactly Lolly, that should make people who really do want to make a difference very encouraged. I can just see them now, deciding to just stay home and not trying to educate people for a cause they are passionate about. Great job interviewer!

  • lolly & yoink – I think you are missing the point about how the issues raised in the film and issues about workers rights are connected. I think it is a hypocritical of the films makers to ask us to make conscientious decisions about environmental issues when they do no recipriate in the same way about worker rights.

  • They are trying to help the enviroment the are trying to help the world in some way,HE could just use all there fame and money for his own gain but hes trying to aleast help out by makeing a movie. People always find something wrong with people who are doing good, when they donothing themselves

  • There is something to be said for this report. However, it’s hard to know if the principals were just trying to save money on a smallish documentary to be used as an educational tool, or if they were willfully trying to avoid union participation and keep costs low. It sounds like much of this was actually filmed in Leo’s mother’s house, especially interviews with certain scientists and environmentalists. Unions, while a good thing in general, also impose certain provisions/impositions on this sort of production and can, in some ways, be a hindrance unfortunately. It can slow down or cost much more and be less likely to allow promotional activities in some respects. DiCaprio did lend his voice and participation to the project so it thus became bigger but it still was small to begin with and obviously didn’t make money. I’d say they were in error but it was hardly a huge blunder on their part.